Celeste Bagert was incredulous when she learned that her husband had signed them both up for a $65 tour of Washington on Segway scooters. "Those," she said disdainfully, "are the dorkiest things, ever." She told him the money would have been better spent on a sushi dinner. Oh well.
The duo is part of a group of friends I've joined for a tour via the iconic transportation device that was supposed to revolutionize the commute, but instead became the province of law-enforcement officials and ... urban tourists. In all, eight of us have gathered for scooter sightseeing in the city declared the most Segway friendly in America by its former mayor.
Two couples on the tour live here, one couple is from New Orleans and the other came from Kansas City, Mo. Most of us are familiar with the city. But we have never seen it like this.
Across the US, guided tours like this one by Capital Segway have taken off in the past three years, with a 50 percent leap in the number offered last year, according to Jason Barton, vice president of sales for Segway. There are 201 Segway tour operators worldwide, four here in Washington, and 127 in the rest of the United States.
When he invented the Segway, Dean Kamen couldn't have imagined that it would one day be a hit with the tourists. But the Segway lets you cover a good deal of ground in a short time with about as much maneuverability as you'd have on foot. The other appeal, of course, is experiencing this conveyance, which is still pretty novel even five years later.
Up close, the Segway Personal Transporter is more intimidating than it looks on the safety video we've just watched. In it an animated stick figure rode a Segway down a steep gradient and crashed, his poor head ricocheting off the ground. (We remain unfazed – we're wearing bicycle helmets. As if Segwaying could get any dorkier.)
One by one, we step onto the Segway foot platforms. It's disconcerting how unnatural these first moments feel. The balance is off. I can't figure out how to turn – even though it's a simple left, right steering movement. Then, suddenly, it becomes intuitive. And fun. Who cares how we look! Lean forward slightly and the Segway responds, propelling its rider forward. To stop, just lean backward.
Our guide, Andrew Work, is a D.C. native at home for the summer from Vanderbilt University. Like motorized ducklings, we follow him out of the office and across the street to Franklin Square park. Steven Orr, the tour company's manager, brings up the rear.
Almost immediately, someone – who has asked to remain anonymous – rolls onto the grass. What begins as a daring maneuver quickly veers into a safety video catastrophe. His Segway loses traction and, bam! he's flat on his back. Our guides look concerned. Our friend, who is unharmed, looks perplexed.
We press on to our first official stop: the White House. Here, more than at any other site we'll visit, we become the attraction. We race up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, easing into top speed (12.5 m.p.h.), as other tourists snap photos of us.
Next we're off to the Washington Monument, where we glide around the Ellipse, the obelisk looming above us as the evening breeze builds with our speed.
At a stoplight I spot a couple who looks especially interested. What do they think? "It draws attention," says Linda Träisk, visiting from Finland. Matt McGowan, a local from Round Hill, Va., has booked the pair on an evening bus tour. I hand them a Capital Segway brochure, which they take with interest. By the time we get to the Capitol, there are only about 20 minutes of tour left. We're pretty comfortable on our wheels – though also a little stiff and tired. The tour ends up covering about five miles in two hours, touching on many of D.C.'s most celebrated attractions (the Smithsonian Castle and American Indian museum, the US Botanic Garden and FBI building). We absorb snappy factoids: The Washington Monument is different colors because the more-than-30-year lapse between its start and completion meant marble from different quarries had to be used. And on our way back we play a nerve-wracking game of Segway tag.
As we pull into the office and expertly dismount, the consensus seems to be that none of us would have wanted to spend a minute longer with our Segways, nor are we especially eager to do it again. But we're all quite pleased to have tried them at least once. I've since overheard a member of our group enthusiastically recommend the tour to other friends – who are inevitably as skeptical as Celeste.
By the end of the tour, however, as she takes off her helmet, even Celeste concedes, "The only reason I did this was because it was already booked – but I'm converted."